arts page 6 courtesy of netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

January 27, 2020

BONO | How The Witcher Mutated Across Entertainment Platforms

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I’d be a fool not to begin my run of columns in the new decade with the last big gaming event of the 2010s: the release of a show on Netflix. I’m talking about The Witcher (2019), a Netflix Original show whose cult following sprang up practically overnight. The franchise already had a sizable fanbase: Andrzej Sapkowski’s original book series about the white-haired monster hunter Geralt, starting with The Last Wish and originally published in Polish, has been around since 1993, and was first adapted into a video game by CD Projekt Red in 2007. But there’s something about the 2019 streaming series that’s captured the imagination of the greater public and turned the song “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” into a worldwide phenomenon beyond fans of Polish fantasy novels.

The show dropped on Dec. 20, 2019, and by Jan. 1, over 100,000 people on Steam were playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the most recent installment in the series. Netflix reported that The Witcher was their second most popular show of the year, second only to Stranger Things, and the original book series’ publisher is sending 500,000 additional copies to print in response to the demand created by the show. Witcher-mania has even conquered the iTunes store, with the show’s original soundtrack rising to number four on the charts the day after it came out. Out of each adaptation, why has this one gained such a following, and why now?

My instinct is to say it’s filling the void that Game of Thrones left behind with its dissatisfying conclusion last year, providing a rich but modern fantasy world. Removed from the shadow of Thrones, though, The Witcher offers more than that: diverse casting, a conspicuous lack of on-screen sexual assault and plenty of humor sprinkled in amongst the grime and action. I was curious to see if the show’s success was due to a divergence from the source material or from being a faithful adaptation, so I started reading The Last Wish and playing 2007’s The Witcher this weekend.

Each of these three incarnations introduce Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, in a different way. In the books, we first meet Geralt during a one-page, no-context sex scene, before skipping ahead to him entering a tavern, looking for work and starting a fight in the process. The first game adaptation starts with the same adventure, but skips all the sex and exposition to jump right into the Witcher’s fight with the striga, a sort of teenage-zombie-werewolf, in a grueling seven-minute cutscene. The show takes an entirely different approach. Episode one, “The End’s Beginning,” shows Henry Cavill’s Geralt battling a kikimora (a big spider thing) before jumping into Geralt’s work in Blaviken, a story which appears later in the book. The show does eventually circle back to the striga plot in episode three, “Betrayer Moon,” but even then it’s different, making the story a mystery Geralt has to solve instead of a series of lengthy expositional dialogue like in the book or a context-less cutscene in the game.

Everything in Netflix’s Witcher is more cinematic, offering pieces of the world and story and encouraging the viewer to draw their own conclusions from them. The Last Wish novel reads like a collection of short stories, so this style of storytelling makes sense, but the show has the added advantage of its stunning costume design. The books have an abundance of fantasy character names with little description to differentiate them. Within the first 20 pages of the book, I grew confused. Who is Velerad? Who’s Ostrit? Do I need to open the wiki just to understand what I’m reading? In the show, it’s equally hard to remember names (except for the truly memorable, like Yennefer of Vengerberg and Mousesack) but it doesn’t really matter because the costume design and makeup allows the viewer to identify characters by sight, not by moniker. The 2007 Witcher game similarly relies on visuals, but doesn’t have the same flexible storytelling, instead relying on cutscenes peppered with point-and-click game mechanics that feel like a lower stakes League of Legends.

When I saw what the game was like, I was worried I wouldn’t like it — I hate click-based fighting mechanics, which is why I never really got into League. I also love a good narrative, but it felt like the story and mechanics were at odds with each other — I had to stop playing to watch the story, or vice versa. The 2015 installment, Wild Hunt, is a far more popular game, so I was worried I’d picked the wrong game to use for my research.  But by the end of the weekend, I was reluctant to stop playing. I wanted to see Geralt explore more of Kaer Morhen, a location we haven’t yet seen in the Netflix show, regardless of how much I had to click to get there.

Like many others, I’m beginning previous incarnations of the story as I wait for Netflix to drop the next season in 2021. We live in an age of adaptations, and every game and comic from the last 20 years seem to be getting a new reboot, leaving fans to worry that the originals will be left behind. But The Witcher (2019), despite, or maybe because of, its narrative mutations inspires its viewers to overcome page counts and mechanics just to spend a few more hours in its world.

Olivia Bono is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at obono@cornellsun.com. On the Level runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.